Americans call it “Styrofoam” and throw it away. Ethiopians know it as “hard sponge,” and scavenge scraps of it in the streets for resale in the marketplace.
“Nothing goes to waste. Everything is reused. Trash in Jimma isn’t a plastic bag. It’s a piece of a plastic bag,” said Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) recently returned from 10 days in Ethiopia.
Accompanied by Ann Saterbak, a professor in the practice of bioengineering education and associate dean for undergraduate education, they are working with Jimma University and its biomedical engineering program. They left Houston Feb. 26 and returned March 8.
“We’re strengthening the skills of the biomedical engineering faculty at Jimma,” said Saterbak, part of the team from Rice and Texas Children’s Hospital awarded a three-year, $200,000 grant from the American International Health Alliance (AIHA). As grant recipients, their charge is to “advance appropriate heath technology design and problem-based leaning for bioengineers and biomedical technicians.”
The five-year biomedical engineering program at Jimma University has about 200 students and a faculty of 20, only one of whom has earned a Ph.D. Through the AIHA partnership, two North Americans are teaching at the school this academic year. Students share a library of 50 or 60 books, most of them donated by Rice students.
Jimma is a city of 200,000 some 200 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, the capital. “They have new facilities for their engineering school. By the standards of sub-Saharan Africa, the infrastructure is in good condition,” Saterbak said.
Saterbak and Wettergreen carried with them from Houston 100 pounds of prototyping material, all of it readily available in the U.S. but uncommon in Ethiopia – rubber bands, paper cups, ping pong balls, modeling clay and scissors. Addis Ababa is home to a vast open-air marketplace, reputed to be the largest in Africa. There, the Americans scavenged more material for use in the prototyping and engineering design workshops they ran for faculty and students. They spent the equivalent of $35 on scrap Styrofoam. With this material, Wettergreen set up a prototyping workshop for the biomedical engineering department.
“Everything is reused until it breaks down into nothing,” Wettergreen said.
A three-wheeled motorcycle known as a Bajaj is a common sight in the streets of Jimma. While most people walk, some hire them for taxi service, and drivers can be reckless in crowded streets. Passengers and pedestrians are often injured.
Saterbak and Wettergreen set up a design competition for students and faculty with the goal of learning how to reduce Bajaj-related injuries. The Ethiopians were given two hours to build a model Bajaj with cardboard and other prototyping material. Into it they placed two ping pong balls representing passenger and driver. The challenge was to run the model down a 30-foot zipline into a wall without the balls flying out.
“The students were like a lot of Rice undergraduates. There was a lot of excitement. Our goal was to get them to use their hands to build a prototype, and they had a lot of fun doing it,” Wettergreen said.
The Rice team has no immediate plans to return to Jimma. Their goal for now is to continue encouraging engineering design at the university.
–Patrick Kurp, Engineering Communications
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